Category Archives: Christos Papadimitriou

Books by Christos Papadimitriou.

Review 125: Logicomix

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou

I have a question for you. It’s a simple-sounding question, but hard to answer, so I really want you to put a good amount of thought into it before you do. Okay? Yes, I’m still in Teacher-mode, but that’s not important right now. My question is this:

What is truth?

Good luck with that whole "free will" thing.

It’s one of those unanswerable questions that has bugged us ever since we started being able to ask unanswerable questions. Along with “Why is there evil in the world?” and “Do we have free will or are our lives pre-determined from the beginning?” or “What’s the deal with that Justin Bieber kid? I mean really?” this question is one that people either ignore or obsess over.

Didn’t think I could do a pop-culture reference like that, did you? Shows how much you know….

This graphic novel is about one man’s pursuit of this question, and the ways in which it nearly destroyed his life. The man was Bertrand Russell, and we follow his life from his childhood to late adulthood as he searches for an unshakable foundation to mathematics and logic, and thus an absolute truth that he could rely on.

Bertrand Russell does not find the truth. He teaches it to come when it is called.

As a child, Russell lived with the question of why things are the way they are, and got no good answers from his domineering grandmother. It wasn’t until his introduction to geometry and the wonder of mathematical proofs that he could finally say there was something about which he could be absolutely sure in the universe. Mathematics, he thought, would be the answer to everything. Pure, unsullied and utterly, utterly reliable.

But there was a flaw in math – the Axioms. Mathematics in the 19th century was a direct descendant of Euclid’s work, and rested on a series of axioms in order to function. An axiom, then, is something that is assumed to be true so that you can go on to prove other things. For example, if you have a line, and a point not on that line, there can be only one line drawn through that point that is parallel to the first. Why is this true? Well… it just is. If you have to prove that, then you have to prove a thousand other things first, and you never end up being able to prove the thing you were trying to prove in the first place. It was like, he thought, the cosmological model of the world on the back of a turtle. Which stood on another turtle. Which stood on another, and another – turtles, all the way down.

The bottom turtle's name is "Jeff." (art courtesy of Kenneth Rougeau)

That didn’t satisfy young Russell, and he went off in search of the floor upon which the last turtle stood, as it were – new mathematics that would be able to define the foundations of math, and thereby give a concrete understanding of the universe. Along the way, his desire to apply the certainty of math to human thought and interaction led him to the discipline of logic, a strange chimera of mathematics and philosophy. By becoming a logician, he thought he might finally be able to pin down some absolute truths about not only abstract math but human nature itself.

Of course, he failed. Spectacularly. Broken marriages, broken friendships, ill health – his obsession with an absolute truth to the universe nearly destroyed everything he had. Fortunately for him, Russell pulled back from the abyss before it could swallow him whole, and became one of the early 20th century’s greatest philosophers in the process. His failure to find an ultimate foundation for logic and math was not entirely without fruit – thanks to work by Russell and others, these disciplines were pushed forward in ways that made our modern lives possible. New ways of understanding the universe, from the unfathomable depths of infinity to the simplicity of 1+1=2, everything was open to examination in those days. Because of men like Bertrand Russell, humanity advanced in great leaps and bounds.

1+1=2. Seriously. No more arguments.

In the end, it’s a compelling book. I read and re-read it, convinced each time that there was something else I had missed. I was very often right. Doxiadis and Papadimitriou have put together a compelling tale of a man often overlooked by the general public, and they did so in a medium that’s close to my heart – the graphic novel. The art, done by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna, is wonderful. It has a simplicity that belies the complexity of its topic, and shows an excellent sense of storytelling. Hats off to the two of them, without a doubt.

This book, it should be noted, is not a primer on logic. If you’re looking to know how logic works, or you want to know a bit more about higher mathematics and how to do them, then you’d best look for another book. As the authors tell us right in the beginning, this book is a story, a great tragedy that owes its inspiration to the ancient productions of the Greeks. It’s the story of a man who pitted himself against the universe and lost, but who did so in such a way that he – and the world – came out better for it. The book ends with a scene from The Oresteia, a classic Greek drama about another man who found himself in a no-win situation with no absolutes to rest upon.

"Stop asking me to prove beauty, dammit!"

Much like Orestes, when faced with two choices that could lead to his destruction, the only way forward for Russell was to compromise and to move forward. By doing so, he not only became a happier man, but became involved with humanity again, as a philosopher, a teacher, and an anti-war activist.

In the end, this book is about the compromises we all have to make as human beings. The world may be a logical place, but we are not. There is a limit to our logical understanding of ourselves, and sooner or later we have to accept that and deal with people as people, rather than as problems to be solved and equations to be balanced. Bertrand Russell’s quest, as interpreted by this novel, is an example of how far we can push the need to know exactly what’s at the bottom of it all. The fact that the foundations of our world appear to be unprovable and unknowable is, ultimately, unimportant. What is important is that we are here, now, and we need to make sense of our own lives.

—————————————————————
“The demand for certainty is one which is natural to man, but is nevertheless an intellectual vice. So long as men are not trained to withhold judgment in the absence of evidence, they will be led astray by cocksure prophets, and it is likely that their leaders will be either ignorant fanatics or dishonest charlatans. To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues.”
– Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays – Philosophy for Laymen
—————————————————————

Logicomix on Wikipedia
Apostolos Doxiadis on Wikipedia
Christos Papadimitriou on Wikipedia
Bertrand Russell on Wikipedia
Logicomix on Amazon.com

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Bertrand Russell, biography, Christos Papadimitriou, graphic novel, logic, mathematics, nonfiction, quest

Best (and not-so-best) of 2010

You know, everyone else is doing lists, so now that the year is over, so am I. Here are the best books I read in 2010!

  • Howard Zinn – A People’s History of the United States. Either a long-overdue look at the disenfranchised and overlooked victims in America’s rise to power or a screed of anti-American socialist dogma. Take your pick, but I know which side I come down on.
  • Warren Ellis – Crooked Little Vein. A trip through Weird America, introducing you to the things people do that you didn’t know people did.
  • Max Brooks – World War Z. An oral history of the Zombie War. Enthralling, exciting, disturbing.
  • Apostolos Doxiadis & Christos Papadimitriou – Logicomix. A graphic novel involving the search for ultimate truth. So involving that I had to read it several times in a row.
  • Barry Hughart – Bridge of Birds. It’s rare that a book shoots right into the “favorite books” category, but this one did it.
  • James Randi – Flim-Flam! This book  is great to give to people who you want to be more skeptical in their lives. A harsh takedown of the ways we try to fool ourselves and others.
  • Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan. Reading this was like taking a trip back to the early Church, and realizing that they were all just making it up as they went along.
  • North, Bennardo, and Malki ! – Machine of Death. Personally, I’m hoping for HEAT DEATH OF THE UNIVERSE, but we can’t all get what we want.
  • Robert Kirkman – The Walking Dead, Compendium 1. A really good zombie comic, something I don’t usually find myself reading.
  • Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha – Sex at Dawn. A funny and very compelling look at the nature of human sexuality, at least before we invented agriculture and screwed everything up.

I don’t really have a “worst” list, because my baseline for “worst” is The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket, so this is more like my “Meh List.”

  • Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg – The Science of Supervillains. Much like their Science of Superheroes book, it focused more on why comic books get science wrong than what comics can teach us about science.
  • Robert Heinlein – Starship Troopers. A love letter to militarism, thinly disguised as a science fiction novel.
  • Terry Pratchett – Unseen Academicals. This isn’t Terry’s fault, it’s mine. The book is about soccer, and I really couldn’t care less about soccer.
  • Henry Hitchings – The Secret Life of Words. I like words, but this was every bit as boring as people who don’t like words think that books about words might be.
  • Robert Heinlein – I Will Fear no Evil. It would be a great story, if there was a story there. As it was, it was a memoir at best. A really weird memoir, but still….
  • John Scalzi – The God Engines. A really cool idea that didn’t seem to come to life for me. If he explores it further, though, I will happily read it.

That’s it! How about you – what were the best, worst, and meh-est books you read this year?

Have a happy New Year, and keep reading!

– Chris

3 Comments

Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Barry Hughart, Cacilda Jetha, Christopher Ryan, Christos Papadimitriou, David Malki !, Elaine Pagels, FYI, Henry Hitchings, Howard Zinn, James Randi, John Scalzi, Lois Gresh, Matthew Bennardo, Max Brooks, Robert Heinlein, Robert Kirkman, Robert Weinberg, Ryan North, Terry Pratchett, Warren Ellis